Two types of books cover own life stories: the autobiography and the memoir. The autobiography is a format reserved mostly for celebrities. Usually, the book informs the reader of the author’s life story. It often starts with their birth or their childhood and ends with where they are near the time of publication. Sometimes it shows some adversity they’ve overcome, like a difficult childhood, but not always. Autobiographies are usually written in tandem with a professional ghostwriter and they usually sell well on the weight of the author’s name.
They are also a boon for the industry. Bestsellers are famously random, but predictions tend to be less so when it comes to celebrity authors. They are verifiably an easier sell than not-so-well-known names.
On the other hand, we have the memoir. Both celebrities and non-celebrities can write memoirs. The difference is that, instead of telling a life story as it happened, the memoir almost always focuses on an extraordinary experience in the author’s life.
It’s infamously difficult to break into publishing, but even more so as a new name. Despite the fact that writing a book is a wide-spread aspiration of British people, the market is dominated by a handful of super-brand authors, with newcomers competing within an ever-shrinking space.
Once published, your book would compete with another 153,000 new titles released in the same year, according to Nielsen BookData, a data service provider, to make it into the elite 0.4% that sell more than 5,000 copies.
Even so, say you’re not a celebrity, but you have an extraordinary story and it convinced a publisher to invest in it. Why would total strangers want to read it in their millions?
Let’s use some examples to show what it takes to write a memoir people will want to read.
What do Will Smith’s Will and Prince Harry’s Spare have in common? They’re both autobiographies co-written with professional writers, they each tell the story of a celebrity and they’re both best-sellers across the world.
On the other hand, what do Wendy Mitchell’s Somebody I Used to Know, Chris Mason’s The Master Plan, Darran Anderson’s Inventory and Tara Westover’s Educated have in common? They are each a memoir written by an unknown person, who has faced and overcome some challenge in their life, and wrote a book about it. These memoirs have all enjoyed a good deal of success.
What makes personal stories successful books?
Understanding why millions of strangers will want to read your story is a crucial step at the early stages of planning your memoir. The answer almost always lies across its three main elements: the personal experience, the story (or challenge) and the message.
As a literary consultant, I routinely read unpublished memoirs. What these manuscripts have in common is a strong focus on the personal story. ‘I’ve been through so much, I could write a book’ is something people often say. In the unkind reality of bookselling, total strangers will likely not want to read it.
The unhelpful misunderstanding here is that the memoir is not about the author, but about the challenge. By making it exceedingly about the author, the memoir will miss the chance to connect with the few thousand readers it needs to make a viable new title, or with the tens of thousands of readers it needs to make a best-seller.
In Somebody I Used to Know, Wendy Mitchell writes about her personal experience of developing early onset dementia. The challenge is the transition to a new way of life. The life-affirming message is that anyone can face such a challenge and continue leading a meaningful life after a devastating diagnosis.
In The Master Plan, Chris Wilson writes about his personal experience of moving from ‘life in prison to a life of purpose’ through his master plan, which included practical steps of educating vulnerable communities and lowering crime rates, if granted parole. The message is that even when no hope seems possible, it’s still worth giving it a try, in as practical a way as possible. His way was to devise an actionable plan for the future. Only secondarily, the book also touches on social phenomena such as the mass incarceration of African Americans in the US.
In Inventory, Darran Anderson writes about his personal experience of growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. The challenge is the social and political circumstances of the Troubles and how they shaped the rest of his life. The message is you can overcome trauma as an adult.
In Educated, Tara Westover writes about her personal experience of growing up in a fundamentalist family and finding freedom through education. The challenge is the frankly bonkers upbringing she had, the message is you can escape your life-limiting circumstances through education.
Immediately noticeable is that these four authors were not celebrities when they set out to write their life stories. And so they did not write them like celebrities. In other words, they didn’t just inform the reader of their personal experiences. Rather, they used their life stories to support their message.
These titles also have a positive message: adversity can be overcome, you will go through it and you will come out fine. Probably not the same person you were before, but meaningfully fine and most likely stronger, wiser, readier to face hardship.
This is significant because people reading memoirs are mostly those seeking inspiration on how to overcome a challenge in their own life.
So, to write your memoir, you must first decide on your challenge. This will be the heart of your story. You can use this challenge to deliver your encouraging message to a reader who’s likely looking at you for some backing.
Once you have made both of these decisions, only then you can use personal experience to support them and build authenticity and connection with your reader. Your reader will resonate with your personal experience on a human level, they will relate to your decisions, good and bad. They will recognise their own reactions in your reactions to challenges they may be sharing, and will seek to learn how you moved on. It is here, in the learning part, where the memoir delivers the most value for the reader. This also means that there is no value in the author’s life story alone.
In conclusion, the main difference between an autobiography and a memoir is not that one is written by a celebrity and the other by a no-one. The main difference is that one is simply informative, while the other is transformative.
To write a successful memoir, you must aim to transform your reader’s experience by helping them overcome the challenges they face in their own lives; in other words, to make it about your reader, and not about yourself. Here lies the reason why millions of strangers will want to read your life story.